A/N: This is a fresh start. I have ceased updating the other Guardian fic, once I realised that my earlier stories are too clunkered and full of flaws. This one, while following the narrative continuity from the previous fic, is mostly disconnected from earlier stories and is designed to be accessible to all. The idea is to have a tighter narrative and a better flow to the story.
All you need to know about the titular character Raine Zin, is that he is a Guardian, part of a mysterious organisation that operates beyond the confines of the Marvel Universe. He has been sent to observe the MU and somehow he ended up being part of the Avengers. But just what has he been observing, and what does his organisation intend to do with it? It's these sort of questions which provide the narrative impetus for this particular story.
The extract below is an exercise in providing background material, similar to the appendices of Lord of the Rings and the Enclycopaedia Galactica entries of the Foundation series. Similar extracts will appear over the course of this fic, meant to flesh out the world from which the Guardians originate and provide ground for future stories that I might write in the Guardian series.
So you can skip it entirely if it feels too middling or confusing. The story is also designed to work as a stand-alone.
Without further delay, here is the prologue. Enjoy!
"…..For the economical sake of widespread comprehension, I shall attempt to approach this particular dilemma through allegorical usage of a well-known hominid myth. The particulars and details of the ancient tale are well known amongst this text's intended audience, and thus shall I restrain myself only to the relevant themes within the soon-to-be apocryphal context.
The myth comprises of two principal characters: a father and his son; but most of us tend to remember the latter for its lamentable folly. Armed with an ingenious invention, it dares to transcend its station and is struck down accordingly by the transgressed- in this case, the resident star. Compactly: it is the personification of hubris. The Aesop remains, to this lasting day- Beings must remain within the confines of their existing limits.
Now let us entertain an alternate notion. We stand at the precipice of a new epoch. In situation akin to that of the previous individual of myth, our collective race now soars above the previous median of 2nd level sentience. Our function has already been radically altered. The Pyramid of Needs has become obsolete. All that remains is for our form to be carried to its logical conclusion. The natural system is about to become entirely subsidiary. We ourselves will construct a self-sufficient system that can function indefinitely and perform in a superior capacity than that which has been prepared for us from before our birth.
Until now, we have gained our unique abilities from proximity of yellow luminals. Afterwards, they shall become inconsequential to our continued existence. In that vein, therefore, will we not, in a sense, become grander, and mightier than these celestial bodies? Will we not become more deserving of praise, for we are to achieve this status through a history of concentrated efforts; the sum total of our brilliant minds; while those balls of fused hydrogen and helium do not even function of their own volition? Are we then, not they, deserving of their ancient names- Helios? Will we not become Helians unto ourselves?
I understand that in this plea I have made a reference to another well-known Hominid text, far more recent than the one I quoted previously, but relatively ancient nonetheless. But, I digress.
The concept of hubris fails to apply in this case. We have been afraid of the unknown for far too long. We have entrusted our fates to the cosmic winds for countless celestial cycles; in return, twice have we been divested from our natural homes. In this new land that we all share with like-minded refugees from countless species, there is unanimous agreement in the favor of forging a new future of our own accord.
The Great Event, long debated, is now inevitable. We must embrace it. We will cast off all our affiliations in regards to our former home. We must construct a new, unique identity that will survive the storms of time.
The question remains: what are we leaving behind? A fierce nostalgia, born out of the terrible oppressors that are inertia and myopia, grips some of our minds in regards to this dilemma. In truth, the definitive answer cannot be known until we have crossed the threshold. There is no question that a profound sense of disorientation and identity crisis of a multifarious nature is likely to follow the change. How will we be truly affected? I leave that matter to be dealt with by future incarnations.
Perhaps, I myself shall take upon the unenviable task to describe such phenomenon at a later occasion….."
End of Excerpt.
You have been reading:
The Helian Manifesto (-2298 O.R.) by Daed-Lus. (-2300 O.R. to -2282 O.R.)
First-Generation Helian; Historian, Philosopher, Geneticist. Founding-Consul of the First Republic of Lumens.
The previous text can also be found in the following one result:
A Brief History of Our Lamentation (-2281 O.R.), also by Daed-Lus.
Source adapted for Tier-2 Cognition, by W1T-b12, Runtime Module T302. English Translation by T1N -e02, Runtime Module T201. Copyright: The Preserver Compendium.
Prologue: Into the Rabbit Hole
Cassie Lang stared across the void through a transparent window made of an unknown material (she was sure it wasn't some kind of glass). A frustrating sight greeted her beyond it; a vast expanse of a highly viscose liquid, full of noticeable chunks of soluble particles which she guessed was some sort of salt. (She was good at Chemistry, she had been told.)
By itself, the liquid was colorless, Jonas had told her, but the pinkish-red colour of the spongy matter underneath lent its sheen to this unusual sea through the process of diffusion. He went into a lengthy exposition afterwards about the probable equilibrium required for organisms such as them to even exist in such a mismatched environment. She could only fetch out the words 'Pym Particles' amongst the rest of the irretrievable mess that consisted his technobabble. Beyond that, she did not care to remember; most of that had gone entirely over her head. She hated it when Jonas showed off his smarts at her expense.
The adrenaline had yet to fade, and she was quivering with anticipation at the thought of exploring this strange new world. After the rollercoaster ride that had taken her through a great diversity of landscapes, the sight currently before her did seem a little tame by comparison; but it still beat being stuck in double period History 101 instead. The rest of the team would have loved this. But she didn't mind; she was part of an expedition team unlike any other.
Uncle Hank was there, and naturally, his friend Bill Foster had tagged along as well. Of course, she was less thrilled with the presence of Eric O'Grady; even though she had hardly met the man, she knew of his lecherous tendencies well enough. He had quite the reputation amongst the closely-knit superhuman community. Thankfully, he hadn't much in that vein to justify his dubious fame to her…yet. (The fact that she was underage may have something to do with that matter, she reckoned.)
Tony Stark himself was at the helm of this strange craft- one of his own designs, he had professed. A sleek new suit of armor coated his figure. He was all business, even more than usual, it seemed. Iron man had never seemed more calm and in-control; at least, not to her.
She herself had gotten a temporary costume change, as it were- every 'size changer' amongst them were adorned in aerodynamically designed, Teflon-sleek full body suits, their aesthetic designs reminiscent to the Ant-man costumes that have evolved over the years. Naturally, the accompanying headgears bore more than a passing resemblance to the iconic Ant-man helmet, as well.
That was Uncle Hank for you- he was sweet and considerate, but he had an innate urge to post his stamp on all things he constructed.
She loved this. This was awesome to the nth degree. (And also, it was without imminent mortal danger, as far as she knew. That helped considerably, too.)
Her high hopes dampened somewhat when a single bittersweet thought wandered into her synapses.
Dad would have loved this.
No. She didn't dare sink into a slump at this juncture. Her dad would have wanted her to make the best of the situation, not mope endlessly over lost opportunities. This, at least, she owed to his memory.
Presently, the constant whiz of the engine faded into silence. Only the dim, almost sub-sonic buzz of the liquid remained, as it splashed against the metalwork of the odd, semi-cylindrical vessel.
It was time.
"So…" Cassie said, grinning like a giddy idiot as she got up from her seat, "Are we there yet?"
Iron man peered over his shoulders, while he continued to do some last-minute diagnostics as the vessel finished its deceleration.
"Yes. Yes, we are," He replied, his voice filter managing to obscure any evidence of emotion to be found in the statement.
The rest of them were standing close; Drs. Foster and Pym were carrying on with a brief, idiosyncratic conversation pertaining to matters only discernible to biophysicists with multiple PhDs.
Eric O'Grady, the perennial outsider (and very much out of his depth in present company) had only just managed to come to grips with the lamentable lack of attractive members of the opposite sex. (He couldn't hit on Underage girls- after all he had an image to maintain! The PR would be disastrous.)
Nevertheless, the Avengers had gone through the bother of calling him up for this job. He wasn't going to waste the opportunity; it would look rather good on his resume for future work, wouldn't it?
"Alright, most of us have gone over this already…" Iron man stated as he got up from the driver's seat, heading towards the assorted individuals, "but for the sake of unified clarity, here is how it stands. This is, literally, a matter of life and death. We all know what's at stake, so there is no point in repeating that. Now as for our mission…"
The crimson chest-plate of the Avenger heaved a little, and then it retreated a bit from the edges revealing a complex, nigh-incomprehensible structure of minute machinery underneath. Blue beams emanated from these gaps, immediately forming a unified, three-dimensional hologram image. It showed a map, if it could be called that, of their immediate surroundings.
The image, in question, was something she should be quite familiar with, Cassie reasoned, but still it carried with it an aura of mystery and innate wonder. And for this, Cassie felt a guilt which she couldn't quite place as to its origins. This made her profoundly uncomfortable, if only briefly.
"Now, we made our entry from here..." Iron man pointed to an opening, and then moved his ring finger through the subsequent tract as he retraced the path they had traveled so far. A yellow dotted line followed his fingers as he did so. "Of course, we passed the cerebrospinal-plasmid barrier without many difficulties…"
Soon, he settled to the point they currently were, and it was surprisingly far-off (in relative terms) from where they had started.
"And now, here we are. The insertion has been successful so far. But the hardest part still lies ahead. As predicted, the submersible cannot go any further without causing massive structural damage to our…environment. Bill, you have the lion's share in terms of total area to be explored. Also, since you are the one with the most ready access to the other three areas, you also serve the purpose of back-up in case of an emergency."
This time, the route plotted itself, a fine thread of purple indicating the optimal trajectory to the destination. Two more threads, one yellow and one red, appeared simultaneously, twisting and turning their way to their respective targets. Curiously, the yellow thread (which Cassie presumed was Uncle Hank's) followed the purple one's lead for quite the time, before taking an unexpected detour and staying there.
"Hank, meanwhile, has not only the smallest, but also probably the trickiest, destination on his hands. Eric…you get middle-ground. But it's nonetheless trickier than anything else you have likely pulled off so far."
"Oh, I wouldn't bet on that, sir," O'Grady replied with just the barest hint of cheek.
"Oh, I would," Iron man deadpanned. "Take it from me- I have read your debriefs, both official and otherwise. From what Maria Hill has sent me so far- and also, from what I have gleaned from…personal research, you are not half-bad when it comes to stealth and infiltration. But that's not what it is, in this case. And you don't have the advantage of any reliable intel in this case, too."
"Alright, Dad," O'Grady replied hastily. "You certainly knew what you were gonna get when you called me up…but still, yeah I will be careful. Satisfied?"
"Just enough," Iron man returned to the matter at hand. An extra green thread appeared on the hologram, and it made its way to the last destination. "Cassie-"
"Why's my one green? It doesn't fit me. At All!" Cassie pouted in indignation.
"I ran out of all relevant colors when I thought your one up," Iron man confessed in earnest. "And Green's a good color. Jonas is more or less green isn't he?"
From behind the Avenger's figure, Jonas was monitoring the diagnostics in his stead.
He also happened to be a tall green-skinned android who went by the moniker of Vision, which was a homage to his predecessor. (Also, he is Cassie's boyfriend. Don't ask! She is very tired of fending questions on the matter by now.)
He smiled impishly at her when Iron man mentioned his name, causing her to flush to an even greater degree of red than his own crimson facial features.
"Well," Cassie could have sworn she heard a muffled smirk as he paused for a moment. "Moving on. As you can remember from the briefing, you will be the one most isolated from your team due to your target's remote location. Regardless, I will be in constant communication with you- and everyone else- for the entire team, so anytime you feel the need-"
"I can take care of myself just fine. I hardly need the kiddie gloves, you know."
"Yes, I know. I also know that you are a minor, even if one who is unnecessarily stubborn, mildly foolhardy and extremely brave," Cassie gushed at the semi-compliment. "And I also have to be aware of the fact that your mother and her husband the disgruntled cop can sue me and Hank for reckless endangerment in case something does happen to you. You understand my predicament, of course."
"I also understand that you are insanely rich and have enough money to buy all of New York ten times over."
"Not as much, no. Maybe three times at most, but ten is really pushing it," This time, Cassie was definitely sure that Iron man was grinning like the smug idiot he was underneath the intimidating, impersonal visor. "But anyways, it's the thought that counts. Also, I have an image to maintain. But that's enough about it, right?" He looked at the adults, who nodded in agreement. Hank seemed mighty pleased with the little verbal sparring between friend and god-daughter; almost too pleased, in fact.
"Alright. You know what to do. Take your positions by the pods…" Cassie eyed the small, oddly-structured miniature vehicles. They looked almost retro-futuristic; spiritual successors to the Sputnik, she noted amusedly. "The launch will begin shortly. A lot of people our counting on us, so let's do our best not to disappoint them. Good luck."
They shook hands afterwards, and Cassie found this somewhat morbid, if solely for the fact that this was hardly going to be their last goodbyes. (She certainly hoped it wasn't. It would be very inconvenient if she died in the middle of nowhere, for sure.)
She and Jonas gave each other meaningful glances- in teenage speak, this translated to "Don't worry about me, I will be alright. I will be there for you," And so on and so forth.
The pod doors opened, and the team took their seats. They had seemed unnecessarily cramped to Cassie during the various drills, and nothing had changed in the meantime for Cassie to reverse her opinion. Regardless, she would manage, as she was sure the others would do. She clamped on her helmet, and quickly got accustomed to the unnatural hum that now emanated constantly from it. (It had something to do with quantum entanglement this or that, Jonas had told her. She didn't want to worry her pretty head about it- she was a Freshman and had a full three years before she needed to understand Particle Physics after all. (Also, did she ever mention how she hated Jonas being a show-off?)
She waited with bated breath.
There was no audible explosion of sound to herald the start of the engines. Cassie only felt a sudden increase in downward pressure as her pod flushed down the bay, the interior view of the mother vessel quickly fading from view.
"Pods have successfully launched. This is a communications check. Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta. Can everyone hear me correctly?"
"Yes" Cassie said. She heard the other three affirmatives on the communications channel shortly after.
"Good, good. As you all remember, the first portion of this particular journey will be automatically charted by your pods' onboard processors until you reach your destination. For this duration, radio silence will be maintained unless in absolute emergency, in order to limit any decay to our current habitat due to excess electromagnetic radiation. Godspeed, ladies and gentlemen."
The others replied with similar platitudes. Cassie found herself mumbling something in similar vein, before the silence completely engulfed her thought processes. Which was all good and well, because this would take some getting used to.
The utter quietness was disconcerting to someone who was used to the constant chatter of daily life in the Information Age. What little light was there was constantly becoming less and less, or so it seemed to her eyes. She (along with her pod) was shrinking and shrinking, until the wrinkles of the surface beneath this intimidating sea widened into vast chasms of darkness. The pod accelerated, and then dived into one such abyss. The shrinking stopped as abruptly as it had begun; and soon she had nothing to see but her own reflection due to the pod's inner lighting.
She had nothing to hear but her own quiet, strained breathing and the heaving of her heart; nothing to smell but the remnants of the two-dollar perfume she had sprayed on in the morning.
Nothing to taste, but her own stingy saliva (the food wouldn't survive being shrunk to such miniscule degrees); nothing to touch but the cold, metallic controls at her fingertips. And the narrow window above, which she pressed against longingly.
To put it bluntly, this was nothing short of mind-numbing. And the journey had barely started.
Data swam in front of the watchful eyes of Tony Stark, manifest in myriads of forms across the seven screens which constituted the deck display of the Nu-Argo. The semantics were infinite, and they sought to assault him at various turns. Fortunately, the truths they told were often infinitely lesser in number and easy to discern; or they normally were as long as he followed the always useful Lex Parsimoniae- one of the two constituents of the heuristic law known most popularly as the Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation is almost always the correct one.
This most effective tool, however, was recently starting to fail him with startling frequency. The main purpose of it, after all, is deliver the user from point A to Point B through a straight line, the shortest distance possible to reach said conclusion. Trouble is, for Tony Stark, lately everything was becoming decidedly non-linear.
The most surefire way to put a futurist into a loop was to confront him with his most ardent desire.
The future, without a doubt, was here. Like everyone else, Tony was ill-prepared to meet it.
It had been two weeks since he had undergone the Extremis process. The excitement had subsided- the apprehension, however, yet remained. Extremis was the breakthrough; now what came next? There were mind-boggling varieties of equally plausible routes all laid around him- and he didn't know which one to choose.
"You seem concerned, Mr. Stark," Vision chipped in placidly, "You can rest for a while, if you want. I have got this in control, rest assured."
"It's not fatigue," Tony replied.
Physically, he was healthy- nowadays, he scarcely needed medical monitors to corroborate on that fact. He could smell (even see, if he squinted quite hard) the healthy dose of CO2 being exhaled from his nostrils. He could hear his enhanced heart beat 47 times per minute. His visual acuity was top-notch. His reaction time was leaps and bounds above any normal human male of his age.
Physically, he had never been better.
"Never mind. So...Jonas. Heh. You know, he used to call himself something like that, too. He went by Victor Shade."
"You mean, the original Vision?"
"Yes, Yes. I almost keep forgetting that you don't have his memory banks," Tony chuckled mildly, "How's it feel knowing that you have a little bit of Kang in you, then?"
"An alternate version of Kang, sir. One who was actively trying to prevent the atrocities of his elder selves, actually," Vision finished, more than a touch of vehemence noticeable in his conviction.
"Very well, mistake conceded. Now, don't mind me- but you seem a tad bit more reactionary than your previous namesake, Jonas. I say this as a good thing, mind you," Tony added, almost as an afterthought.
"Alright, sir. I will take it as a compliment, then," Jonas wasn't entirely convinced, but decided not to pursue this thread of conversation any further.
And neither did Tony. Both returned to the comfort of the quietness. Supergenius android or not, Jonas was not keen on perusing the philosophical debate concerning the tricky dichotomy of Free Will vs Determinism. His personality, of course, was modelled on the neuron pathways of a teenager; consequently he could care less for matters of the epistemological plane.
Internally, Tony remarked about a silly thing: the Vision had become considerably more human in temperament, while Tony Stark was headed down the reverse route at the moment. For greater context, he decided to replay, in his mind, a certain conversation he had with an esteemed colleague a few days back. Perfect Memory Recall was one of the milder benefits he enjoyed thanks to Extremis, actually.
"Enjoyed the apple juice, child?" Sal Kennedy inquired in usual half-leering, half-jovial manner.
"It still tastes like hell, reconfigured taste buds or not," Tony replied. He was of the strong suspicion that Sal had mixed more than just homegrown apples in the diabolical brew.
"Well, I would say that one should not be knee-jerk dismissive of eccentric flavors, Tony...Caviar didn't taste all fine and dandy either the first time you tried it, was it?" Sal had switched to his Zen master mode.
"No, it did not," Tony did not appreciate the unease at being reminded of that most hated of his afflictions.
"Hmm. So what comes next, lad?"
"Extremis, Tony. Yes, it elevated your repair centers to unprecented levels of biological efficiency. Light-speed interface with your suit of armor, unlimited remote access to satellites, WMDs, home appliances, so and so forth.
"So, right now you are...what, functionally immortal? Frankly, what are you going to do with it? Continue to play superhero until somebody supercedes your specs- and mind you, that is going to happen someday- and murder you in Times Square?
"And now, you can talk to machines. Yes, information retrieval, synchronisation, etc. becomes a helluva lot easier. But what of it? You have been handed the ball, Tony. What are you going to do with it?"
"Easy, Sal. It took Maya Hansen more than a decade to come up with current-gen Extremis. The goal was only ever...biological efficiency, as you put it. Besides, I hardly planned on getting injected with the process before hand, you know."
"Well, the applications are what make the product, Tony. Maya, bless her tortured soul, never had your raw engineering intellect at any rate. You have the Machiavellian savviness of Edison as well as the crazy potential of Tesla, my friend! Besides, Maya's end-goal was curing cancer. At your hands, that only has to be a minor checkpoint. Why stop there, at all?
"Extremis, in and of itself, is a marvelous thing, I agree. But it was only ever going to be a prototype. In relative terms, it's simply a stone axe at this point. Can't you see where this can lead you, my child?"
"Well...I can guess," Tony knew only too well of Sal's Transhumanist slant.
"You can rebuild the human being from scratch! Before you go calling me an absurdist fool, you damn know that it's entirely possible. With people like you and the McCoys, Pyms and Richardses of the world, it can become a concrete reality in a few short years. Tell me, is the mandatory need to shit and piss an essential part of human nature? What exactly makes us human? The organic structure of our body?"
"Among other things. It's dangerous to play God, at this level at least," Tony replied curtly.
"Heh. Well would you call people who use prosthetics inhuman, Tony? Cochlear implants, Pacemakers. These are all tools, just as Extremis is. Why not use it to remake our- let's face it- eminently crappy design into something infinitely better?"
"Well, for the sake of argument, what would you actually propose?" Tony knew better than to confront Sal directly when he was on such a roll.
"Well for starters, the human brain. It barely limps along with exaflop/exabyte processing power, right? Now imagine...your brainpower not being concentrated in one spongy lump of flesh, but actually spread over the entire breadth of your body. Think of it!
"Each of the approximate ten octillion atoms in the human body being altered to possess alternatable, perfectly functionable copies of your brain; imagine that they all work together, in a hyper-advanced neuro-commune. They will possess a collective processing power of...what, quakkaflop/quakkabytes?"
"Quakka? What does that mean?" Tony couldn't prevent that chuckle from escaping his contorted lips.
"10 to the power forty-eighth."
"You just made that up, Sal."
"The point is, that theory is actually a lot closer to reality than the realm of science fiction than many would like to believe, even with our pedestrian technological routes. I am not even taking into account the kind of fantastic stuff Richards probably hoards from Galactus' cookie cupboard, or the like."
"Alright, say I take your hypothesis- which is all it is, actually- at face value. What would I, or anyone else, do with that much computing power, Sal? Can our fragile psyches be even trained to handle that kind of substantial culture shock?"
"Someone has to throw the first stone to figure that out. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?"
"Sal, Sal, Sal," Tony sighed. "Look, we have danced this dance before. Why don't..." Tony stopped short.
"I need to leave," he said abruptly. "There's a metahuman situation in Connecticut. Someone's using a stolen Dynamo armor. Or it could just be Russia's way of having plausible deniability. You know how tricky these things can get."
"Indeed, then," Sal stood up; they were already in the veranda. Tony's two-piece suit had been replaced by the golden-undersheath of the current Iron man armor. "You can't run forever, you know."
"Yeah. It was good talking to you, Sal. We should do this again some time," Tony remembered to be courteous enough to step into the lawn before the ensemble parts of the armor fused around his figure; he blasted off without another word.
That was three weeks ago. The underlying unease that had delineated his posture became all the more apparent in this recounting due to the fact that he had relived it all in the space of a pico-second. He had half a mind to forcibly excite his hypothalamus to secrete endorphins* in order to wipe away the distaste- but then he realised the irony.
A singular ping sounded from the deck interface. Tony had more than an inkling as to what its portent were likely to be. A brief peek into the contents of on-board rig's RAM- for that was quite faster than his visual coordination- verified his estimation.
"Okay. That's the notification of the last pod reaching its initial checkpoint...Communications are a go once again. So, lady and gentlemen, I hope you can hear me?"
Four different affirmatives came back in reply.
"Great. As of this moment, Golden Fleece is in its third and final stage. It's all up to you now, guys."
That was true in more ways than one.
*Endorphins are natural chemicals found in the brain which influence a variety of emotions, such as fear, anxiety, pain, happiness, etc.